Sunday, February 28, 2010

A true martial arts legend makes a crappy movie

True Legend
My rating:

Yuen Woo-ping is the man. He's one of the finest martial arts choreographers still working, if not the best, and he's been recognized in both East and West. He can elevate a fight scene into the level of art; a scene that tells a complete story in and of itself, that reveals character, that has its own mood and tone, and is still wildly thrilling. His filmography as action choreographer is as long as my arm, but this humble film critic is especially enamoured of his work in Fist of Legend, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the Matrix trilogy. Those movies have some of the best fight scenes ever filmed.

But when it comes to directing a whole movie, Yuen Sifu should really let someone else sit in the chair.

Su Can (Zhao Wen Zhuo) is a respected general in the Qing Imperial army, but gives it all up for a quiet life with his wife Ying (Zhou Xun) and son. However, his adopted brother Yuan (Andy On), who has since become a governor, bears a grudge against Su's father (Leung Ka Yan). When Yuan kills his father, Su and Ying barely escape with their lives, leaving their son Little Feng (Li Ze) behind. Sister Yu (Michelle Yeoh), a hermit who lives on Beidou Mountain, helps them and gives Ying a job making wine from the herbs she gathers. Meanwhile, Su meets an Old Sage (Gordon Liu) and a God of Wushu (Jay Chou), with whom he duels daily - although they may only be figments of his imagination - to regain his martial skills and rescue his son from the evil Yuan. Oh, and once all that's done with, he fights a bunch of gweilos.

This is gonna be a tough one to review, since we've already had one hopelessly cheesy period kungfu film for CNY. But 14 Blades wasn't as dreary and self-important as this, and it was marginally more competent at telling its story too. For most of its running time, True Legend is yet another iteration of How the Grievously Wronged Kungfu Master Got His Groove Back - nothing we haven't seen before, but competently done with one or two new touches. But then it tacks on a third act that has nothing to do with anything that came before, in which suddenly our hero is battling evil foreigners (Russians this time - at least it's not Japanese) to uphold the pride of Chinese martial arts. Aiyoo, Yuen Sifu, what laa??

Hong Kong just loooooves their pseudohistorical kungfu folk heroes, don't they? We've had Wong Fei Hung, Fong Sai Yuk, Huo Yuanjia, Ip Man, and now Su Can, better known as So Hak Yi or Beggar So. What differentiates this guy from the others is that, well, he's a beggar - no nice kungfu school and legions of reverent students for him, just dirty rags and a serious drinking problem. So one of the new touches is the implication that, what with his hallucinatory sparring sessions with a Wushu God, he may be a few sheep short of a paddock. But this isn't really developed to any effective degree, and a great deal of the blame falls on Zhao Wen Zhuo's shoulders. Why is Zhao, with his undeniable martial skills, not as big a star as Jet Li or Donnie Yen? Because he's a lousy actor.

But another new touch is that the hero's wife, whom you'd normally expect to die in the first act and thus fuel a revenge plot, survives and accompanies him during his exile. This gives Zhou Xun more screentime, which is the smartest thing the movie does. She's really good here, in a role that's far better suited to her talents than Zhao Wei's in 14 Blades. Michelle Yeoh is nothing more than a cameo, but Andy On is an effectively menacing villain, and has some decent fights with Zhao. And then there's Jay Chou. Whose idea was it to cast Jay Freaking Chou as a God of Freaking Wushu? It's not that he doesn't fare well in his fight scenes, it's that he looks ridiculous in the role; and that Shaw-Brothers-meets-Stan-Lee costume doesn't exactly help. Hell, you've already got Gordon Liu in the very same scenes, why do we still need some prettyboy popstar?

Then again, all this is in the movie's good parts. After Su settles things with Yuan, it turns into a whole different movie - a much worse one at that. Zhou Xun is replaced by child actor Li Ze, whose perpetual bawling of "Daaaaaad!" is icepick-to-the-ears annoying. The Wushu God reappears and teaches Su drunken boxing, which here bears a suspicious resemblance to some jammin' b-boy moves. (Oh, is that why Jay Chou is in this thing??) We get a half-hearted retread of the tired old Chinese-hero-upholds-Chinese-pride-against-dastardly-foreigners theme. And then David Carradine shows up! Sadly, this may be one of his last screen appearances, and it's an unworthy send-off for the late actor - he's about as bad as Caucasian actors usually are in Hong Kong kungfu movies.

At least the fighting is decent, which is the least you can expect from a Yuen Woo-ping movie. Although they'd be better if they were better edited; seriously, action editing is a lost art even in Hong Kong, the place that once showed Hollywood how it's done. But what's saddest is the vague sense that Yuen is ripping off other movies that he did fight choreography for - Liu reprises his Pai Mei role from Kill Bill, and the ending recalls Jet Li's climactic fight in Fearless. Yuen Sifu is still a legend in the world of action cinema, and he surely has a few more great movies in him yet. But only if they're directed by, like, real directors.

NEXT REVIEW: The Book of Eli
Expectations: not very high

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Watch your favourite stars cash paychecks

Valentine's Day
My rating:

I have a number reasons for being biased against this film. One: it's been getting pretty lousy reviews everywhere. Two: sold-out screenings thwarted me from watching it twice. Three: I am a single guy going alone to watch a movie called Valentine's Day a week after Valentine's Day. So it occurs to me that if I gave this an unfavourable review, that might be construed as a sign that TMBF is losing his highly-acclaimed objectivity.

Naah. It really does suck.

It is Valentine's Day, and love is in the air in Los Angeles. Reed (Ashton Kutcher) is a florist making deliveries; he has also just proposed to his girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba) who is less than enthused. His friend Julia (Jennifer Garner), an elementary school teacher, is dating a doctor (Patrick Dempsey), whom Reed finds out is actually married. Julia's friend Kara (Jessica Biel), a publicist, is organising her annual "I Hate Valentine's Day" party, and sparks fly when Kelvin (Jamie Foxx), a TV sports journalist, attempts to dig a story out of her concerning her client, football star Sean Jackson (Eric Dane). Liz (Anne Hathaway) and Jason (Topher Grace) have recently started dating, but he doesn't know that she's a phone sex worker. Grace (Emma Roberts) and Alex (Carter Jenkins) are in high school and contemplating having sex for the first time. Nine-year-old Edison (Bryce Robinson), one of Julia's students, is feeling the flush of first love - but his grandparents Estelle (Shirley Maclaine) and Edgar (Hector Elizondo) have to deal with a dark secret from the long years of their marriage. And two strangers, Kate (Julia Roberts) and Holden (Bradley Cooper) meet and connect on a plane.

I usually try to fit in all the major characters in the movie in my synopsis, but in this case there's really no point. The ensemble romantic comedy has been done before with 2003's Love Actually, and that one got better reviews than this movie. See, I can believe that Richard Curtis, who also wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, had a genuine story to tell about love in its myriad forms, as experienced by a variety of characters. But Valentine's Day comes across as a naked cash-grab, offering nothing more than star power and shallow sentimentality. Oh, and a whole grab-bag of cliches and contrivances too.

Now, I don't believe that - like some of the reviews have said - this movie has too many characters and too many stories, leaving all of them undeveloped. I believe that all these characters and all these stories could've worked if they weren't so lame. Take Reed and Julia, the story that takes up the most screentime. See, the movie employs this conceit that everything takes place within Valentine's Day, and somehow neither director Garry Marshall nor screenwriter Katherine Fugate ever realised this was a bad idea. Reed proposes to his girlfriend, gets dumped by her, then falls for his longtime close friend, all within a day. Normal people don't behave this way; those who do are called raging drama queens. (Love Actually was smart enough to space its timeline out over a few weeks.)

Then there's Liz and Jason. I am unfamiliar with the working practices of the "adult phone entertainment" industry, but if you're gonna work in it and hold a day job and go out on dates, shouldn't you learn a little goddamn time management? And then there's Kara and Kelvin. The former is a neurotic workaholic who's never been able to find a date for Valentine's day, and she's played by Jessica Freaking Biel. Her "romance" with Kelvin is the laziest-written thing in the whole movie; they fall for each other due to nothing more than accidental physical proximity. Estelle and Edgar are the senior citizens of the movie, so they spend much of their time being wise and kindly to the young 'uns - then Estelle tells Edgar her deep dark secret, for literally no reason other than they need some drama to justify their presence.

Wait, there's more! At one point, Edison - the little kid - goes to Reed's shop to buy flowers. He points to a bouquet that's clearly tagged 55 dollars, then attempts to pay for it with what looks like the contents of his piggy bank that only amounts to 13 bucks. Is he retarded? Can he not read and/or count? No, the point of this is that it's supposed to be cute when Reed lets the kid shortchange him in the spirit of goddamn Valentine's Day. The manager of a high-class restaurant allows a friend to pose as a waitress and terrorize a customer, in the name of revenge over infidelity. A couple reconcile and declare their love in front of a crowd, who subsequently applaud. And towards the end there is a synchronized dance scene.

Sigh. It sounds like I'm just nitpicking, doesn't it? I just don't know how else to convey how lame this movie is, if not by listing down as many of its lamenessities as I can remember. But there are some good bits. Some of the dialogue is clever. Some of the performances are enjoyable; Taylor Swift has fun playing a ditzy teenager, which may be a dig at her public image. At least one of the stories, the Holden and Kate on a plane one, ends unexpectedly. And it is reasonably clever how all these characters are interconnected in some way. Once again, this didn't have to be a lousy movie. Better writing and better direction could've made this a good ensemble romantic comedy that all takes place within one Valentine's Day.

But no, Marshall and Fugate simply didn't bother. Y'know what this movie reminds me of? A Hong Kong CNY "hor sui pin". You got your star-studded cast. You got the actors spoofing their previous movies: Taylor Lautner jokes about taking his shirt off, Jamie Foxx plays a piano, and Julia Roberts mentions shopping on Rodeo Drive during the end-credits outtakes. You got end-credits outtakes. And above all, you got a director and writer who think all the above is all you need to make a movie that'll pack 'em in. But it shouldn't, guys, it really shouldn't. If this time of the year makes you feel like watching a romantic movie with a special someone, there are better choices. Watching Valentine's Day for Valentine's Day just because it's called Valentine's Day is like pouring shit all over your sundae just because it's brown.

NEXT REVIEW: True Legend
Expectations: it's Yuen Woo-ping, how bad can it be?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Big action star tries a little something new

Little Big Soldier
My rating:

Jackie Chan is one of one of the hardest-working entertainers to have ever lived. He can also be terribly lazy. The Spy Next Door, The Forbidden Kingdom, and Rush Hour 3, anyone? But notice that those were his last three Hollywood films; by now, it's obvious that the ones he returns to Hong Kong to make are the real Jackie Chan movies. (Although honestly, I liked Forbidden Kingdom, but that was definitely Jackie lite.) I deliberately stayed away from The Spy Next Door simply because of how banal and worn-out the premise is - it actually annoyed me that Chan would slack off on something like this.

But if his Hong Kong movies are this good, he can go ahead and make as much Hollywood crap as he wants.

It is 225 B.C., during the Warring States period in China. The army of Liang has ambushed the forces of Wei in a bloody massacre that has left both sides completely annihilated - except for a wily old soldier from Liang (Jackie Chan) and the young general of Wei (Wang Leehom). The soldier takes the wounded general prisoner with the intention of claiming the reward for his capture. First they must get to Liang, and along the way they will encounter an alluring songstress (Lin Peng), a group of war refugees forced into thievery, and a band of tribal warriors. But hot on their heels is a troop of Wei soldiers led by Prince Wen (Yoo Seung-jun) - whose intentions towards the general are less than merciful.

Aaaargh. Who edited this thing? It's credited to Mainland Chinese writer-director Ding Sheng, but in a Jackie Chan movie it's hard to tell who's really responsible for what. (Chan's credits on this: lead actor, producer, executive producer, action director, and "story by".) The editing is choppy as all hell. It careens wildly from shot to shot and scene to scene with nary a pause for breath. In many of Chan's and Wang Leehom's dialogue scenes, I could barely make out who was saying what. Plot elements are blink-and-you'll-miss-it, and the impact of emotional scenes is truncated and diminished. Even the quiet, reflective scenes seem rushed; it's as if Ding and/or Chan was desperate to trim the movie down to 90 minutes. It's inexplicable and annoying, because Little Big Soldier is a good movie.

Jackie Chan has reportedly had this story idea for 20 years, and its culmination was worth the wait. It's a classic Hong Kong film - it combines slapstick comedy, brutal violence, poignancy and tragedy, and makes it all work. It's a Jackie Chan movie that's also a meditation on the pointlessness of war. It's the medieval Chinese Midnight Run, and anyone familiar with that 1988 Robert De Niro-Charles Grodin-starrer knows that to be compared to it is high praise. It is every bit as smart, fun and funny, but Midnight Run would never dream of being as weighty and dramatic as Little Big Soldier dares to get.

Weighty and dramatic are things that Chan attempted last year in Shinjuku Incident, with reportedly mixed results. (I haven't seen it.) This film proves that he doesn't have to stretch the limits of his acting ability too far to make a good movie - and that said movie doesn't have to be pure fluff. His unnamed soldier is lots of fun, with his bag of tricks for playing dead and staying alive, his country-bumpkin cheerfulness, and his oft-repeated wish for nothing more than a plot of land to farm in peace. But although Chan is the funny man to the general's straight man, he's no one-dimensional comic relief. There is tragedy and pain behind his cheerful reminiscences of his family, and there is a pride behind his avowed cowardice.

In fact, there are surprising dimensions to all the main characters here. Early on, one of the general's men attempts to rescue him from the soldier - and the general promptly kills him, arbitrarily suspecting him of betraying his army to the enemy. And this is one of the good guys, the other half of this buddy pairing, and played by popstar heartthrob Wang Leehom. Prince Wen gradually becomes sympathetic and honourable, but first he's a vicious brute who smirks as he murders peasants. All this is consistent with the film's theme of how the powerful treat the weak callously, and applies it to hero and villain alike. Although it can get somewhat on-the-nose - at one point the soldier outright tells the general, "in peacetime, we could have been friends" - this is still pretty darned sophisticated storytelling. I didn't know Chan had it in him. (Or maybe it was Ding, who has the screenplay credit.)

But this is still a Jackie Chan movie, so it's still funny and action-packed and often both at once. His character is no kungfu-fighting badass here; he's a farmboy who wants nothing to do with war, and has made a career of surviving and deserting every chance he gets. So when he challenges his hostage to a sword-sparring session, he gets pwned by the obviously better-trained general. But this really isn't a departure for him. Chan has always had the uncanny ability to kick ass in a way that looks like he has no real asskickery skills to speak of. There are plenty of his trademark action scenes here in which he fights off one combatant after another with seemingly nothing more than quick reflexes and sheer luck. Oh, and there's also a bear and a buffalo.

And there's also that moronic editing. Make no mistake, this is a fine movie, and likely Chan's best in years. But whoever edited it really deserves a tight slap, even if it was Chan himself. I haven't even mentioned Wang's acting; he's decent, but he could clearly have been better if the camera didn't keep cutting away before he could fully sell a scene. Still, go watch this for a taste of Jackie Chan doing both what he does best as well as something fresh and new. In Hollywood, he's a product to be marketed to as low a common denominator as possible. In Hong Kong, he's an artist with enough respect and clout to execute his own vision. And Little Big Soldier proves that there are still exciting new horizons to his vision.

(But seriously, Jackie? Please go back to the editing suite for this. Please!)

NEXT REVIEW: Valentine's Day
Expectations: bah cynical celebration of commercialized sentimentality

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chris Columbus and the Fantasy Film Franchise That Won't

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief
My rating:

I was somewhat shocked to learn that Chris Columbus wrote The Goonies. TMBF is a child of the '80s, and that film was a cornerstone of a youth ill-spent on filmic depictions of magic and adventure and other childhood empowerment fantasies. Um, yeah, I really really liked it. Fortunately, he didn't direct that one - that'd be the now-80-year-old Richard Donner, who needs to make more movies before he dies. I've made no secret of my dislike for Columbus, and if I find it dismaying that he was involved in one of my favourite movies - or at least one that I look back fondly on - I'd clearly not be the most objective viewer of his latest movie. But hey, I like childhood empowerment fantasies. So yeah, I tried to be as fair and impartial as I could to Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. I really did, I promise.

It still sucked.

Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is an average teenager with average problems - dyslexia, ADHD, a long-suffering mother (Catherine Keener) and a good-for-nothing stepfather Gabe (Joe Pantoliano). He soon learns that he is in fact a demigod, the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), the Greek god of the oceans; and that his best friend Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) is a satyr assigned to protect him. He is brought to Camp Half-Blood, where other children of gods and mortals train to become heroes under the tutelage of the centaur Chiron (Pierce Brosnan), and meets his fellow demigods Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and Luke (Jake Abel). But trouble is brewing among the gods - Zeus' (Sean Bean) lightning bolt has been stolen, and Percy is the prime suspect. Accompanied by Grover and Annabeth, Percy must clear his name, or an all-out war between the Olympian gods will consume the world.

This film's screenplay was credited to a Craig Titley, who is also credited for writing both the Cheaper by the Dozen movies. Haven't watched them, haven't heard good things about them, but if they were any better written than this one then, well, it's gotta be Chris Columbus' fault again. Because the writing is awful. Allow me to explain what "on-the-nose dialogue" means: early on, Percy complains to his mom about what an asshole Gabe is. Did they just meet? Is Gabe just a guy whom his mom's been dating for a week or two? No, he's his stepfather - which means Gabe is married to his mom, which means they might have possibly been in a relationship for a while beforehand, which means he and Percy must already know each other well. But when Percy whines, "Why do you put up with him?", there's no sense of any backstory to these two characters at all. It's as if they spontaneously popped into existence the moment we, the audience, first saw them. It makes the story ring false.

That's why it's called "on-the-nose". It's dialogue that's too precise, too exact, too little of anything - e.g. wit, characterization, worldbuilding details - other than just what the audience needs to know to understand the plot. Other than the three young heroes, the cast is populated by talented veterans like Keener, Brosnan and Bean, and none of them are able to deliver their lines with any conviction; in fact, they sometimes look downright embarrassed to be there. Even Brandon T. Jackson, playing a stereotypical sassy black sidekick, is saddled with some painfully unfunny lines. Only Uma Thurman as the snake-haired Medusa, Steve Coogan as Hades and Rosario Dawson as Persephone are effective, because they get to ham it up; those who have to take their roles seriously just can't rise above the lazy script. (And sometimes the dialogue is just odd. Grover eats a lotus and exclaims, "This is the best thing I've ever consumed!" Consumed?)

Why are empowerment fantasies so popular in children's literature? Because when you're a child, power is the one thing you don't have. You are always being coddled, ignored, or belittled by adults; nothing that's important to you is important to them, and what's important to them is treated like something you'll never understand. That's why stories of children who become heroes, whom adults admire and depend on, who become important, are so evergreen. Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson novels follow that formula to the hilt - as does J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, of course. They both have child protagonists; Harry was eleven years old in his first adventure, and Percy twelve. But for some facepalm-inducing reason, the cinematic Percy is a high school senior, played by 18-year-old Logan Lerman.

This is dumb, for two reasons. First is that Lerman is annoying. When he first discovers his demi-divine powers, just in time to deliver a swordfight beatdown to Annabeth - he smirks. Maybe it's just me, but I simply cannot root for a hero who smirks all the time, especially in young-adult fantasy adventures that always tend to make Mary Sues out of their heroes. He personally kills all the monsters and solves all the problems, he single-handedly saves the day, everyone loves and admires and idolizes him, and he's just smirking through it all. All this would be more bearable if Percy were, say, an apple-cheeked 11-year-old Daniel Radcliffe - or at least a better actor than Lerman, who seems mildly taken aback by the fact that he just watched his mother die.

Which brings us to the second reason: this movie is kiddie-safe all the way. Yes, Percy's mom dies, at the hands of a giant minotaur no less, and it just looks like she disappeared in a cloud of perfectly bloodless CGI. Then Hades appears and says no, she's not dead, she's just in the underworld over which he rules. Which means she's dead laa. But no, Columbus relentlessly files off anything remotely edgy or mature. Which, again, wouldn't be so bad if the heroes weren't eighteen. And after all the fantasy adventure films Columbus has made (and keeps making, goddammit), when is the man going to learn how to film a decent action scene? Percy's fights with the minotaur and the hydra are hopelessly contrived - the meaner they look, the more unbelievable it is that they can be killed by a human a fraction of their size. And there's swordfights, but the choreography is just lame.

Well, okay, it is a fantasy adventure. There are monsters and magic and fantastic vistas - I thought the underworld looked quite cool. These did actually make me consider giving this movie two-and-a-half stars, but then I remembered that's the same rating I gave the first two Potter movies. And those had neither Lerman nor Titley's screenplay. No, I guess I'm not being very fair or impartial to Columbus, a director who treats his audience exactly like an overbearing parent treats his children - patronizing, mollycoddling, and insulting. But that's not even what annoys me the most about him. What annoys me the most is that he keeps getting his hands on great material and ruining it.

NEXT REVIEW: Little Big Soldier
Expectations: if it's good, I'll forgive Jackie for The Spy Next Door

Saturday, February 20, 2010

14 blocks of yummy, yummy cheese

14 Blades
My rating:

So I'm alternating my reviews of the CNY cinema releases between English and Chinese movies. There's precisely three of each that I'm keen on watching, and if I still have time to spare I'll catch one of the star-studded "hor sui pin" comedies - though frankly, they're low on my list. (Besides, I doubt any of 'em will beat the one I saw already. Malaysia Boleh!) What's high on my list are kungfu action movies like this one, 'cos that's just more my cup of tea.

Speaking of which, the best beverage to accompany a viewing of 14 Blades would be wine. Lots of it.

The Jinyimei, or Brocade Guard, are an elite unit of Ming Dynasty secret agents who operate above the law. However its leader Qing Long (Donnie Yen) is forced to go rogue when he uncovers the treachery of Imperial eunuch Jia Jingzhong (Law Kar-ying), who is in league with Prince Qing (Sammo Hung) to overthrow the Emperor. Betrayed by his second-in-command Xuan Wu (Qi Yuwu) and pursued by the Prince's assassin Tuo Tuo (Kate Tsui), Qing Long goes incognito and enlists the aid of a security escort company led by Qiao Yong (Wu Ma) and his daughter Hua Qiao (Zhao Wei). His mission is to recover the Imperial Seal that Jia has stolen - and an encounter with the self-styled Judge of the Desert (Wu Chun), bandit leader of the Sky Eagles, leads to an unexpected offer of aid.

cheesy (chē'zē), adj. - that which aims to be profound or cool, but comes across as ridiculous. And good lord, is this movie ever so cheesy. There's enough mozzarella in here to make Pizza Hut offer their stuffed crust at no extra cost. Here's a sampling: Qing Long carries a tricked-out box that houses the titular weapons, as well as a veritable Batman's utility belt's worth of gadgets. Tuo Tuo isn't just a hawt-but-deadly assassin, she also possesses what appears to be the combined superpowers of Nightcrawler and The Flash. There's a bit in which a crossbow firing explosive arrows works and looks exactly like a freakin' RPG. And speaking of crossbows, there's a guy who can shoot mini-arrows out of his leg, and also throws a spinning double-bladed weapon like that five-pointed star thingy from Krull. All this and your standard wuxia themes of honour, brotherhood, justice, heroism, and the existential angst of living only to kill.

Okay, none of this is new to Hong Kong cinema. This is exactly the kind of overheated, high-minded action epic that Tsui Hark and John Woo used to make during their heyday. Done right, you get a Swordsman or a The Killer. Done wrong, and you get enough camembert to send France's GDP soaring. An extremely fine line separates the two; one man's awesome is another man's cheese is a third man's stupid and irritating. Tsui and Woo are much more skilled storytellers than writer-director Daniel Lee, and their films avoid the pitfalls that 14 Blades falls into - on-the-nose dialogue, muddled plotting, one-dimensional characters, and a tone-deafness to the aforementioned oh-so-profound wuxia themes. But the movie's biggest pitfall? Is really, really bad casting.

What's Zhao Wei doing here?? Did she have any idea what she signed up for? Hua Qiao is ditzy, ineffectual, starry-eyed, and a poster girl for Stockholm Syndrome - Qing Long kidnaps her when his identity is exposed, and she goes from attempting to escape to mooning after him to risking her life for him within minutes. Zhao is waaaay past that stage in her career to play a character like this. Her approach to playing such a flower vase character is "quietly dignified" - which is completely wrong, but it proves how the role is an insult to an actor of her stature. And then there's this Judge of the Desert dude. Here's a guy who dresses like Captain Jack Sparrow, says he will give up banditry when he finds a cause worth dying for, and leaps into battle with a lusty cry of "Here come the Sky Eagles!" You need a veteran scenery-chewer for a role like this, not a member of the Taiwanese boyband Fahrenheit. Google some promo images of Wu Chun in this; that mildly-irritated look on his face is the only expression he has in the entire movie.

And there's also Qi Yuwu and Kate Tsui, who aren't exactly bad - it's just that they're lousy matches for the star of the movie. Dear Mr. Donnie Yen, yes, you're Hong Kong cinema's premier action superstar, but you're only as good as your opponents. You vs. some preening PYT (of either gender) can never beat you and another trained martial artist going at it, no matter how the action choreography and editing tries to hide Qi's and Tsui's lack of skill. Which, to be fair, they do a not-half-bad job of - that's something Hong Kong cinema has always been good at, and the fight scenes do generate some decent thrills. As for the Yenster himself - yes, in martial prowess he's more than a worthy heir apparent to Jet Li and Jackie Chan, but for screen presence he doesn't quite match up yet. Roles like perpetually stoic badass Qing Long ain't gonna stretch his acting range none.

Okay, it's not all bad. The movie looks great, for one thing. It takes us to the northern desert regions of China, which you don't often see in Hong Kong period kungfu flicks. Yes, some of it - especially that desert city - is CGI, but a lot of it is also some terrific set design and gorgeous locations. And there's the aforementioned fight scenes, which are overly-elaborate but effective. ('Sides, it's not like Tsui Hark's and John Woo's action scenes weren't the same.) That's about it for the film's unironic pleasures, though. Everything else is enough limburger to set off a chemical weapons alert.

But cheese is cheese, and it can still be enjoyed on the level of cheese. (There's also deliberate cheese, which is really the best kind, but this movie isn't that self-aware.) Much of the movie had me facepalming, but later on I found myself giggling maniacally, and by the climactic fight scene I was genuinely enjoying myself - but first I had a good laugh at how the fight just happens to take place at a picturesquely gloomy ancient-underground-tomb-ish place for no reason. So yeah, three stars for 14 Blades, which is tantamount to a recommendation to pick it up on DVD. That way, you can also grab a bottle of merlot to go with all the gorgonzola.

NEXT REVIEW: Percy Jackson and Lightning Thief
Expectations: bah Chris Frigging Columbus

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?

The Wolfman
My rating:

Gong Xi Fa Cai to all from TMBF, who has just come back from CNY holidays, most of which he spent getting nicely stuffed with both food and angpows. I hadn't exactly intended to take a break from blogging, but familial obligations kept me too busy to either go to the movies or get online. Which has me a little anxious, since there's a whole heap of movies out for the holiday season that I intend to review, so now I've got my work cut out for me. (Ten new movies out this week, but not a single new release the week before. Local cinema distributors are just made of facepalm.) Anyway, I had time for one quick movie before I went balik kampung, and this is the one I picked; it's the one I'd been hearing the most hype about.

Guess that also makes it the most disappointing.

It is 1890, and American stage actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) has returned to his ancestral home in the English moors on the occasion of his brother's death - torn apart by a savage beast. His estranged father Sir John (Anthony Hopkins) greets him cordially, as does his father's manservant Singh (Art Malik) - but it is his brother's fiancee Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) that arouses deeper feelings in him. Later, he is attacked by the same animal - and although he survives, he too now transforms into a bloodthirsty werewolf during the full moon. Even as he struggles to preserve his humanity, Scotland Yard inspector Francis Aberline (Hugo Weaving) arrives to investigate the brutal killings for which he is responsible.

So it appears this movie is a direct remake of the 1941 film of the same name, one of Universal's classic monster movie stable that includes Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. (All of which have also been remade.) I'm old, but I ain't that old enough to have watched the original; but I wonder if the choice to be faithful to the source material is part of this film's biggest problem. The storyline is stale and flat; I kept waiting for it to throw something fresh and unexpected at me, but by the time the ending rolled around all I felt was a sense of "that's it??" In fact, it reminds me of nothing more than Ang Lee's Hulk, which isn't a flattering comparison.

A formulaic story can still be enjoyable if the film is well-made (case in point, Avatar). But its tale of the angsty man-beast never really resonates, and a lot of it is due to the lead actors. Benicio Del Toro gives a curiously dull performance here. The man has an Oscar to his name, but he's just wooden as Lawrence Talbot; in fact, for some reason his dialogue is kept to a minimum, and there are long scenes in which he simply doesn't speak. (Could it be because the Puerto Rican actor wasn't comfortable with an American accent? His delivery is occasionally stilted and monotonous.) Emily Blunt is also wasted in little more than a "flower vase" role, and she and Del Toro don't generate much heat. Only Anthony Hopkins' calmly deranged Sir John is fun to watch, but that's an act he can play in his sleep.

What keeps the proceedings entertaining is some effective scares by director Joe Johnston. He doesn't skimp on either the gore or the jump-scares, so there's some fun to be had in both departments. Make no mistake, this is a bona fide horror movie, and these aren't the toothless teen romance variety of werewolves. And it's all very nice and gothic; Talbot Hall's crumbling exterior is suitably menacing, and its interior boasts some gorgeous production design. The cinematography is also quite lovely, whether it's the perpetually gloomy town of Blackmoor or its spooky moors and forests at nighttime. England circa 1890 never looked so good, and Danny Elfman's bombastic score offers a feast for the ears too.

But there's no telling how much of it is really Johnston's doing. This movie underwent quite a troubled production, and it shows; I noticed at least two instances of slightly dodgy editing, and I'd be willing to bet that Del Toro originally had more dialogue too. Those links report that the film's most extensive reshoots were to revise the look of the wolfman - and I thought he looked fine, honestly. I've read quite a few reviews that say he looks cheesy and fake, and I didn't think so, although he doesn't exactly beat Avatar's Na'vi for realistic CGI creatures. The transitions between old-fashioned makeup (by SFX legend Rick Baker) and computer animation are seamless; and yes, he does look better running on all fours.

Seems like it's all for naught though. It's a pretty sad fate for The Wolfman - irreparably meddled with, then dumped into cinemas on Valentine's Day week when few people are in the mood for a dark horror-thriller. (And no, what passes for a romance between Lawrence and Gwen does not cut it.) Moreso here in Malaysia, where it's also the Lunar New Year period. So, tough luck Johnston and Del Toro, it coulda been cool but ended up meh. Now let's check out some CNY-appropriate fare.

NEXT REVIEW: 14 Blades
Expectations: no LoveHKFilm review as yet, so I'm pretty much going in blind

Friday, February 12, 2010

You deserve better, Nabil and Sarah

Lu Pikirlah Sendiri de Movie
My rating:

"Lu pigi mampuslah." That's the headline I was all set to give my review of this movie. But much as I love my movie title-based headline puns - I'm all about that, yo - I have to admit that Lu Pikirlah Sendiri de Movie doesn't deserve such nastiness. It's actually not as bad as most other Malay movies I've seen. TMBF is fair, and if there is yang jernih didalam yang keruh, then I'm not gonna throw away the whole belanga.

Even though it's not exactly nila setitik in this belanga. More like nila setong.

Nabil (Ahmad Nabil Ahmad) struggles to hold down a job and support his family, which includes his mother (Liza Othman) and younger sister Aishah (Mila). On weekdays he's a despatch rider at an office, and develops a crush on the cute receptionist Syarifah (Ummi Nazeera); on weekends he learns the mechanic trade at a workshop; and at night he helps his friend Man (Md. Eyzendy) sell kuey teow at a pasar malam. One day he meets spoiled rich girl Natasya (Puteri Sarah Liyana), and it's hate at first sight - but she also happens to be a university student and friend of Nabil's old schoolmate Zizan (Zizan Raja Lawak). Something about him gets under her skin, and soon deeper feelings begin to develop between the two.

Look at that poster up there. Yes, that's Nabil, but the girl he's with is not Natasya, the ostensible romantic female lead. (Good thing, otherwise this movie'd be pedo-creepy.) That's his sister Aishah, who's only a tangential character in the movie, but she's in the poster because Mila is also known as Mila AF5 and supposedly quite the "artis meletup". That's emblematic of the whole movie, whose biggest problem is that it doesn't know what the hell it's doing. And poor Puteri Sarah Liyana gets robbed of the exposure she would've gotten from being on the poster of the movie of which she is the star.

The storyline is, to put it kindly, totally hampeh. There are way too many subplots - Natasya has a best friend named Dana (Tasha) whose boyfriend Zizan is two-timing her with some other chick (Nurul Ain); and he has another friend (Azwan Kombos) who seems to have a thing for Natasya; and there's some jealousy going on between Dana and Natasya as well; and just for giggles, there's a security guard (Ebby Yus) at the university with a crush on a lecturer (Vanidah Imran). None of these are developed to any satisfying degree - and they shouldn't even be there in the first place, 'cos kan Nabil hero movie ni? And speaking of which - first time we see Nabil, he's at home with his mum. A good 20 minutes later, we're like, eh, he has a sister. And it's not till the last half hour that we find out he also has an ailing father, and an older brother who literally comes out of nowhere for an entirely new plot twist. Dear Madam Writer-Director Aminah Rhapor, kenapa tak introduce diorang awal-awal??

I swear, it's like they shot this film with a couple dozen script pages missing. Another example is when Nabil visits Natasya at her house. How did he know where she lives? And why is he just tetiba sitting on her porch swing strumming a guitar like a freakin' ninja? The whole movie is full of WTF like this, and it all points to the fact that Aminah doesn't have a goddamn clue how to tell a coherent story. It's probably also why this has the most egregious overuse of slow-motion I've ever seen in a single movie. Saja-saja bubuh slo-mo. Main lantak je slo-mo. Slo-mo yang takde kena-mengena dengan apa-apa pun, except to pad out the running time. Tulah, mesti skrip diorang ada pages yang hilang entah gi mana. As a matter of fact, I took note of the editor of this thing - dude's name is Mat Salleh Mat Desa - in case it's dia punya angkara instead of Aminah. No matter whose it is, it's memang WTF giler.

So why does this movie not deserve to pigi mampus? Because of its lead actors. I've seen Nabil in minor roles in Pisau Cukur and Momok The Movie, and wasn't impressed in the slightest - but here, he proves deserving of the career boost he got after winning Raja Lawak 2. He has an easy-going charm that's terrific at winning the audience's sympathy, and he proves up to the task when things get dramatic. In fact, since this movie is sort of a biopic of Nabil's pre-big break life, he could've very well come across as a blatant Gary Stu - but although this depiction of him gets pretty fawning, he's never unlikable. Also good is Puteri Sarah Liyana. Pretty young starlets like her tend to be wooden (*coughFashaSandhacough*), but Sarah tackles her rich bitch character with gusto. The best thing about both of them is that they have chemistry. Their bickering is fun to watch, and there's plenty of entertainingly snarky dialogue for them to deliver.

It's too bad then that their romance, like every other aspect of the storyline, sucks. But even then, there's some wheat in this chaff. After their first inauspicious encounter, in which Nabil berates her for being bitchy and spoiled and useless, she literally starts stalking him. She goes looking for him at all his workplaces (how does she know where he works? Entahlah beb) just to pick fights with him. Yes, it sounds pretty stupid, but I actually believed it; their first meeting comes right after a scene where her lecturer gives her a pretty harsh talking-to over her failing grades. So she comes across as someone who's not at all happy with who she is, and that's why she fixates on Nabil as a scapegoat for her own guilt and shame. Profound siut! Now mind you, I don't believe for a second that Aminah planned this. 'Cos her romance with Nabil does not turn out to be the catalyst for her self-realization. That's the kind of story that's way beyond Aminah's miniscule talents.

Sigh. Once again, decent actors are let down by a sucky script and a boneheaded director. And both Nabil and Sarah have publicly griped about it too. (Not very professional, but quite understandable. And goddamn it Utusan Malaysia, don't try to turn this into a feud between Sarah and Mila!) Oh, and I oughta mention the presence of pop-rock band Meet Uncle Hussain, who makes this the second Malay movie in a row that has a musical Greek chorus - and they're a damn sight easier on the ears than the karaoke stylings of Angah Raja Lawak. I like their songs, and I think the soundtrack brought a great deal to the emotional effectiveness of this movie. And it is effective, at parts, enough to make me consider giving it an extra half-star. But the parts that are fail are truly epic fail. It's okay, Nabil dan Sarah; I'll be looking forward to your next movies. Just stay the hell away from Aminah Rhapor.

NEXT REVIEW: The Wolfman
Expectations: looking forward to it

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

It's about kidnapping, and it's, like, dark, y'see?

Black Ransom
My rating:

I've been thinking of writing a rant about annoying audience behaviours in the cinema. My viewing of Black Ransom had some of the worst assholes I've had the displeasure of sharing a movie theatre with; there were two douchebags who talked on the phone loudly, another guy with an irritating (and loud) laugh, and a bunch of teenagers who stepped out for a full third of the movie before tromping noisily back in. But then again, I'd only be ranting about what everyone already knows - people who talk at the movies are inconsiderate morons, yeah yeah, what's new.

Besides, I'd be more pissed off about it if the movie hadn't sucked.

Brother Mann (Simon Yam) is a veteran cop whose B-team is perpetually overshadowed by the more glamourous and successful A-team led by the arrogant Tiger (Chan Bo-Yuen). However, the new Superintendent Koo (Fala Chen) respects Mann's experience, and puts both teams on a new case: triad leader Qing (Parkman Wong) has been kidnapped and held for ransom, the latest in a series of high-ranking gang kidnappings. The leader of the kidnappers is Sam (Michael Miu), an ex-cop turned vigilante against the gangsters he arrested but couldn't convict. And although Sam is married to Can (Qu Ying), he still carries a torch for Eva (Liu Yang), who in turn is being wooed by another gang leader Ice (Kenny Wong Tak-Bun). And both Sam and Mann have grudges to bear against Ice.

It's been a lousy couple of weeks at the movies, and that's why I chose to watch a film that did not get a favourable review from the good folks at LoveHKFilm. I was desperately trying to avoid The Spy Next Door and The Tooth Fairy, but I had to update the blog, and I thought this one could at least be cooler than The Rock/Jackie Chan hamming it up with the cutesy and the kiddie-friendly. But the Movie Gods have decreed, "Thou Shalt Not Turn Thy Nose Up At Family-friendly Fare, Nor Shalt Thou Judge A Film Solely By Its Premise (No Matter How Hackneyed)." Thus they have chosen to punish me two-fold. Black Ransom is an incredibly slapdash movie, and I can't even get too mad at Irritating Laugh Guy because it really is laughably bad.

This movie was written (and produced) by Hong Kong crapmeister Wong Jing, and it's like every ten pages or so, he'd suddenly remember something from some other movie he saw and just throw it into the script. At heart, it's a cat-and-mouse action thriller between soulful cop and honourable crook, which is typical Hong Kong movie fare. But soulful cop is also saddled with a smarmy rival and ditzy teenage daughter and traumatic past, and honourable crook also has a traumatic past and love triangle and righteous anger against a broken justice system. (Wong Jing must've watched Law Abiding Citizen at some point.) And there's also a bona fide villain for you to hiss at, in case the hero-vs-antihero conflict gets a little too morally ambiguous.

All of which could still work if it were handled skilfully, if all these plot threads were effectively woven together and satisfyingly resolved. But Wong Jing isn't out to make a good movie here, just a quick buck. Tiger and his A-team disappear halfway in, as does Qing. The revelation of Mann's and Sam's traumatic pasts come completely out of left field. Superintendent Koo has nothing to do except look pretty. Mann's daughter Yan (Hiromi Wada) gets involved in the proceedings through a wildly improbable coincidence. There's a climactic fight scene that's effectively choreographed, but what makes it a real head-scratcher is that it's between a good guy and a sympathetic guy, instead of, say, a villain.

And then there's the truly WTF and LOLworthy stuff. During a firefight with Sam and his men, Mann closes his eyes and summons "the feeling" - which is this sharpshooting superpower that allows him to take out a rooftop sniper. Later on, it gives him the ability to curve a bullet like James McAvoy in Wanted. No, I am not making this up. There are two flashback scenes that are hilariously and jarringly over-the-top violent. And at one point, a guy goes to a girl's place for dinner, unaware that it's a trap set by her lover - who waits till after dinner and a make-out session between the guy and his girl before springing the trap. None of this is even trashy fun; director Keung Kwok-Man doesn't have the visual flair to make all this silliness entertaining. In fact, much of the first half is downright boring, with precious few action scenes to lighten the bad drama.

The movie has two saving graces, and they go by the names of Simon Yam and Michael Miu. I've seen Yam in so many smarmy villain roles that I'm still surprised he can play heroes; his many decades of acting experience give him the gravitas and screen presence to emerge unscathed from a Wong Jing movie. He even manages to almost - almost - sell the "feeling" scene. Miu may not have had the career his TVB peers from the early 80s (which included Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) had, but he's another old pro, and he turns in an equally classy performance. That's about it for noteworthy acting in this film, really. Fala Chen is way too young and pretty to be a believable police chief. Liu Yang is a nice eye-washer, but her character is just horribly written. Kenny Wong hardly has anything to do. And what's up with the soft-focus on every single shot of Qu Ying? Why her and no one else? Who makes these kinds of decisions??

I said before that I feel like watching more Cantonese films. But it's stuff like this that reminds me why the Hong Kong film industry, that once turned out some of the most terrifically entertaining movies ever made, is now a shadow of its former glory. (And it's not even really Wong Jing's fault; at least he's still making movies and making money, and keeping the industry alive.) No, it isn't worth braving this kind of crap just to garner more international hits for my blog - and it certainly isn't worth sharing a theatre with annoying, inconsiderate, and downright assholic cinemagoers, who for some reason tend to gravitate to Wong Jing movies. Seriously, even a typical Malay movie audience is better-behaved; at least they're there to actually enjoy the movie.

NEXT REVIEW: 2 Hati 1 Jiwa
Expectations: hey, a movie directed by a guy with his own Facebook fan page can't be that bad, right? *snicker*

Update: Yikes. Looks like 2 Hati 1 Jiwa has ended its run in the Klang Valley; I'd have to go to Sungei Petani to catch it. So, no review then. Terrible loss, I'm sure.

NEXT REVIEW: Lu Pikirlah Sendiri
Expectations: if it sucks as bad as I expect it to, I already have a snarky headline for my review all prepared

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

238,857 miles away from home

My rating:

I think I may be getting spoiled by the cinema-going experience. This is my fifth Not Coming to M'sia movie - which by nature are all films I saw on DVD - and they've all been hard to review. I've always felt like I should like them better, and that they're just not grabbing me enough simply because I'm not getting the big-screen experience out of them. (Time to start saving up for that 48-inch TV.) Moon has been especially hard to get into - not through any fault of the movie itself, but because I tried watching it twice and both times my DVD conked out on me an hour in. Such are the perils of watching home movies in Malaysia.

But it's a pretty damn good movie anyway.

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the sole human being living and working on a base on the moon, overseeing a valuable mining operation. His only company is a computer named Gerty (voice of Kevin Spacey) and the occasional video message from his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott). All he's looking forward to is the end of his contract in two weeks' time, and the prospect of coming home - but three years of isolation has left him desperately lonely, and perhaps, not quite mentally and emotionally sound. On a routine drive out on the surface to tend to a harvester, he hallucinates and crashes his rover...

...and that's all the synopsis I'm gonna tell you. It's really the kind of movie that's best watched if you know as little as possible. But my principle is that it's not a spoiler if it's in the trailer, so I will reveal that the plot involves there being two Sam Bells running around the base. Why and how, I shall keep mum about. But this is the film's vehicle for telling a story about loneliness, an examination of the ethics of future science, a character study, and a sci-fi story that is truly science fiction. Writer-director Duncan Jones (whose father is the one and only David Bowie) has openly admitted the influence of films like Outland, Silent Running, Alien, and of course the seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey. That influence is in the sterile look of the lunar base, the treatment of astronauts as working grunts, and the deliberate pace of the plot.

What it does with the two duplicates of its main character, however, is entirely original. It may test some viewers' patience when, after discovering the other's existence, both Sam Bells spend a goodly amount of time warily circling each other instead of getting down to solving this mystery. But I happen to enjoy a good character drama, and this is a uniquely science-fictional device for Sam to literally come face to face with himself. There are clear indications that his marriage is estranged, and that he took the contract to work on the moon as an escape from his problems at home. Sam Bell is not a happy man, before or after three years of soul-crushing loneliness, and that's why the two of them - two of him? - can barely stand to be around each other.

Which also makes this film an acting tour-de-force for Sam Rockwell. He makes you forget that this is one actor playing dual roles; coupled with Jones' ingenious technical trickery, the illusion that you're watching two people is seamless. His performance really is amazing, both from the sheer acting craft required to play two different versions of the same character, as well as the skill to perform them both interacting with each other. In a just world, he'd win every acting award of the year. The only other character with significant screen time is Gerty, the base's computer represented by a couple of robot arms and an incongruously humourous smiley-face screen, and given an appropriately creepy monotone by Kevin Spacey. Yes, he instantly recalls HAL 9000, but his role in the story isn't what you'd expect.

I'm making this movie sound boring, aren't I? Well, it is a slow-paced film, and it demands both intelligence and patience of the viewer. But it's also science fiction at its most deliciously mind-bending and thought-provoking. The two Sam Bells do eventually uncover the mystery, and it is not only heartbreaking, but also heralds the more suspenseful last act of the movie. There aren't supposed to be two Sam Bells at the same time, and there are people who intend to rectify that mistake - and this puts our hero(es) in a race against time. The resolution of the mystery, the character drama, and the ultimate fates of both Sam Bells are terrifically satisfying, and ends the movie on a high note. So yes, it's a fun movie, if you enjoy this kind of fun.

And why shouldn't you? I've made no secret of my love for science fiction before; I like a good popcorn movie, but I especially appreciate a film made for intelligent adults rather than nine-year-old boys, mainly because they're so rare. And this is definitely a rare film, so by all means seek it out and show it some love. Hopefully you'll get a good DVD copy that plays all the way through for you; if I'd had that from the beginning, Moon might very well get an extra half-star from me. I suppose it's certainly too much to hope for that our local cinema distributors would bring this in to theatres.